Why you need to see Sicario: A review

sicario, emily blunt, josh brolin, benicio del toro

So, you may have heard of this little thriller making the rounds called Sicario. Everyone is talking up how great and intense it is and how you should go see it. If you’re one of the people that’s hearing that then it means you probably haven’t seen it and therein lies the problem. You see, Sicario IS that good. It’s damn good. It’s fucking great, actually, and it’s not a film you should wait till iTunes, Netflix, or HBO to see. If you’re pirating it, well, we have nothing to say to each other. No, this is a movie you need to drive your ass to the theater to see. Buy some popcorn or sneak in some snacks, ignore any obnoxious patrons, put away your phone and enjoy a well-made, thought-provoking thriller that will kick you in your genitalia and leave you with plenty to chew on well after the credits roll.

And yes, I view that as a good thing.

Written by Taylor Sheridan (who some might remember as Sheriff Hale in Sons of Anarchy – who knew he could write the hell out of a script??) and directed by Prisoners helmer Denis Villeneuve, Sicario is a gritty, slick, violent, and shocking thriller that takes you on a journey through the ugly world of the war on drugs, particularly on the U.S./Mexican border. Emily Blunt plays an idealistic FBI Agent assigned as a liaison for a government run task force, led by Josh Brolin, rocking a full-on cocky operative demeanor. Rounding out the group is Benicio Del Toro who plays a mysterious and dangerous role in the task force, which is slowly revealed throughout the film.

sicario, emily blunt, josh brolin, benicio del toro

While the trailers would make you think that Blunt’s character is the center of the film, that’s far from the case. Blunt represents the audience in Sicario. She’s not really the protagonist, per se, but the vessel to our journey in the film. She has very little understanding of what’s really going on, leaning mostly towards her “by the book” training and ideals, which are slowly eroded as the truth of the situation is revealed little by little. It’s brilliantly executed and allows the story to unravel in a way that keeps us invested and engaged, as we experience every moment along with Blunt’s character; every twist, truth, lie, shock, and near-death moment becomes our journey as much as hers.

To go in depth on the story would be to ruin those moments, so I’ll keep those details light. It’s essentially a hunt for the “biggest bad” of a particularly brutal cartel, all while witnessing that hunt through the eyes of Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro, each of which have a different perspective or motivation for what they’re doing. In between those lines we witness the brutality from all sides; again, there is no black and white. Sicario is a tale told on a tipping scale that sways back and forth, never really settling on the right or wrong, just the harsh reality and sad consequences.

Blunt is strong here and as a huge fan of hers I’m happy to see her take on roles like this. I was both disappointed and thankful that the role didn’t turn out to be another action heroine one. Although we get to know a bit of her backstory, I did feel that her motivations for even being an agent were left too threadbare, which is a common complaint I have with characters that choose a dangerous profession. On a base level I wanted to see her more “in the action” but ultimately it wouldn’t have served the story any better and she does get her hands dirty more than once, just never in a particularly heroic way. Although, there are no hero’s here.

sicario, emily blunt, josh brolin, benicio del toro

Brolin’s shady government character is what would typically be the hero role and maybe that’s true to a certain level, but I think that’s a matter of perspective. Some will see him as a villain, some as hero, and some as a man just doing his job. I think he’s a bit of all of those, personally. Del Toro’s character, the “Sicario” of the title, is the most complex and emerges as the real protagonist of the film. Dark, somber, mysterious, and filled with hurt and sealed rage, Del Toro brings “Alejandro” to life with an intensity we haven’t seen from him in a long time and it’s brilliant to watch. In my mind, Del Toro is the real star here, but that doesn’t take away from Blunt or Brolin, both of which bring their A-game to the proceedings.

There’s a number of sequences that make Sicario stand out, notably the opening, which lets you know the film’s intentions right away, basically stating, “This ain’t gonna be pretty.” And it’s not. Although, in another light, it’s absolutely gorgeous, thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who captures the light and dark of the film with absolute precision. For a film with such ugly elements it is a beauty to watch. Villeneuve navigates the pace with a masterful touch, guiding the film much like an unfolding mystery as much as a timely thriller. He’s a filmmaker to watch, as he’s made known with his previous efforts, Prisoners and Enemy, and Sicario is absolutely his biggest triumph to date.

The convoy drive through Juarez and border standoff is another deftly executed sequence that defines nail-biting suspense. It reminded me of a convoy through Iraq or Afghanistan and I felt that sudden jolt of PTSD-fueled anxiety. Not many films can reach that level, especially for me, so when it does I know I’m dealing with something that means business. I don’t know if it was intentional, but Villeneuve captures that sequence very much like a war film and it plays perfectly as such. The finale is the darkest and most intense of the film, none of which I’ll spoil here. Rest assured it will fill the air on your drive home.

sicario, emily blunt, josh brolin, benicio del toro

And you can’t talk about Sicario without mentioning the score by Johann Johannsson, which is an eerie, pulse-pounding symphony of dread that serves as the driving force of suspense from start to finish. It’s an absolutely amazing score that fits the film like a glove. I couldn’t imagine Sicario without Johannsson’s score. It would be a very different film and that says a lot about his contribution here.

I love movies like Sicario for many reasons, but mainly because it has balls. By that, I mean it takes risks, it does things you don’t expect (in fact, it rarely lets you know what to expect), and it doesn’t coat a damn thing with sugar. Nor does it paint anything black and white. At any given moment I was waiting for “the lesson”. I was waiting to be preached to, waiting to be told who the “real” bad guy was and letting the bitter pill of disappointment settle into my bloodstream. But, that didn’t happen. Instead, I was treated to a film that didn’t tell me how to feel, but rather LET me feel as the events unfolded. There are a number of running themes about the war on drugs in Mexico, including corruption, lack of oversight, etc., all while putting a spotlight on the consequences of it all, particularly how the cycle of violence affects the most innocent of all victims; children. However, I never felt that I was being beat over the head, but rather exposed to a world and immersed in a story; y’know, the way it should be.

Even if Villeneuve or Sheridan did intend to spell it out, I never got that message. They told the story, point blank, and left me with something to mull over, rather than dismiss as a lecture. We can leave that shit to Oliver Stone and Spike Lee.

And that’s why I can’t recommend Sicario enough. It’s not standard studio fare, it’s not safe, it’s not preachy; it is thrilling, provoking, shocking, and brutal, with performances, direction, cinematography, and a music score that define exemplary filmmaking. Sicario is an example of how, why, and when cinema is an art form and not mindless, passing entertainment. It’s the purest use of the medium and deserves to be seen by as many people that will watch it.

9.5/10

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